I am naturally a night-owl. Some of my biggest moments of productivity and inspiration used to come late at night, working at my desk, while everybody else was asleep. I would work furiously at the computer in the dark, knowing I was less likely to be disturbed or distracted by others and knowing that, if I just squeezed in that moment of great productivity before the day was over, I would sleep better that night. I remember days during high school and college where I would start on a project around midnight and finish it around 2:30 or 3, with 1:30-3 being the most productive hours of the day. The rest of the world seems to stop at this time and you can focus on what you need to accomplish.
Eventually, the wheels come off — and they did in my case.
A combination of factors just did not make night-owl work sustainable for my life. Working with people on the West Coast and some other night owls meant that my hours of productivity could be interrupted by emails, Slack messages, and phone calls. Spending a sizable chunk of my time as a professional emailer meant that I needed to be up and working before the start of business on the east coast, lest my email response time slip. Travel between different time zones sapped energy from me. Throw in a few family crises and trying to run two startups at once and I found myself reacting to the world around me more than creating it. I barely had energy when the day ended to squeeze in that productivity, even in a day that was “productive” for work. Not to mention that I had no opportunity to maintain and improve my health.
I found myself in a state of reacting to the world around me, losing the power and energy that has brought me so far and fueled much of my drive. All the productivity hacks and time management tools in the world couldn’t save me.
Why? The issue wasn’t too little time, the issue was too little control over what was happening in my life. Time was just a secondary factor.
What I needed was an opportunity to assert control and to remind myself that I am the one who determines my day-to-day — that my life is designed by me.
I could have just done anything crazy to assert this control (and this is, I believe, what drives a lot of seeming-mental breakdowns in people who are really stressed — their unconscious knows they need to re-assert control and looks for the easiest way to do that).
The secondary element that this assertion needed was an element of discipline. I’ve noted the importance of asserting discipline through small actions before here and tested this theory on myself. I find it useful to remind oneself every day of the power that the individual has over his own life, even if that is through little things like waking up early or abstaining from certain food or drink.
Through discipline comes freedom.
The easiest way for me to assert control over my life, rebuild my strong sense of personal discipline, and regain those hours of the day where I can work without interruption is simple: wake up early. For extra discipline and emphasis, wake up really early.
It wasn’t like I am somebody who slept until 9 AM, anyway. I woke up at a health 7:30 or so after ~7 hours of sleep. I relished in those hours of the day when I could work, read, or write without interruption, though, and the only way to gain those was to wake up before all of my colleagues or business partners.
I remembered one successful businessman in particular with whom I work and the feeling I had when I saw that he replied to my emails at 5 AM in the morning. At first, I was a little shocked that a man who ran three profitable businesses could wake up that early with ease. I then realized that this sense of discipline was what made it possible for him to run these businesses.
I committed to waking up well before anybody I work with (or, at least, wake up before they start working) and set on giving myself buffer time, so I chose 4:00 AM.
4:00 AM was early enough to let me get moving on my day without having to stress about, “oh, can I squeeze in a workout?” or, “oh, will I have time to read today?” or, “will I have time to get through my emails from the night before before new ones roll in?”
Knowing that I am most productive with 7 hours of sleep, I tried to get to sleep by 9 PM for about a week. Even with the use of melatonin, this wasn’t easy. I got up a few days around 4:30 without the energy I was hoping to find.
After focusing on forcing the transition with sheer force of will, I decided to alter my diet. I wasn’t eating unhealthily, but I experimented with reducing my net carbohydrate intake to fewer than 60g/day and found that I could get as much energy from 5.5-6 hours of sleep as I got from 7 hours when I was consuming my usual diet. This let me get to bed at 10 PM and get up around 4 with the energy I needed.
I threw in anaerobic and aerobic exercise (with ~30g of carbohydrates) between 4:15 and 5:15 to give me a burst of energy and start the day in a productive state.
An unintended consequence of this has been a reduction in my coffee consumption. I used to drink coffee after the first 15 minutes or so of waking up. Now, I get the energy that coffee simulates through physical exercise and don’t find myself wanting a cup until 10:30 or so, and usually to accompany food.
This has by far been the best change I have made to my day-to-day life in years. This small physiological change positively impacts my mental and psychological drive and energy throughout the day and makes me resilient to busy days that take up a large chunk of my time and schedule.
Typical Morning Schedule
4:00 AM — Wake up
4:05 AM — Eat (oatmeal with heavy cream)
4:10 AM — Leave to gym (walk/jog)
4:15 AM — Aerobic exercise (jog)
4:35 AM — Anaerobic exercise (weight circuit or HIIT)
5:15 AM — Return home
5:30 AM — Read or write
6:05 AM — Shower (I didn’t think was necessary to add, but some comments on social media made me think otherwise)
6:15 AM — Respond to Emails/Send Urgent/Important emails
6:45 AM — Go to beach and/or office
8:30 AM — Begin “work day”
Again, by far the most useful change I have made in my life. I get that not everybody “needs” to be a morning person, but if you are struggling to find the drive and energy in your day that you know you have, I recommend trying this out for a few weeks.